On February 16th, 2012, a service was held to honor and celebrate the life of Don Cornelius. I sat there surrounded by hundreds as we watched Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Jesse Jackson and Magic Johnson pay tribute to his life and influence. For those of you who might not know, Don is the creator and face of the one and only:
This is my story of directing it.
I worked on Soul Train weekly dance show from 2001-2 and 2005-6. Little changed from the Soul Train re-runs of the seventies to the ones I did. Soul music in all its glorious forms and derivatives were showcased and informed a generation, both black and white.
Soul Train was iconic to me from the moment my eleven-year-old eyes watched the show and my ears heard the show. From 1971 to 74, Saturday mornings from 10:30 to11:30 were an incredible ride on the Train, with Soul Music, and Hot Girls; girls who were nothing like the Great Neck girls who never talked to me. These girls were something my going through puberty stage wanted, needed and dreamed about.
Soul Train featured a deep voiced, huge afro wearing host, the world famous Don Cornelius. Don was everything I thought was cool… I mean I wanted to be a New York Knick, Walt “Clyde” Frazier or Earl ‘The Pearl” Monroe but I was a skinny white Jew from Great Neck. I wanted to be Black, I wanted to be a Pro Basketball player or the host of Soul Train. Dream one faded in direct correlation to my not growing an inch after ninth grade. Dream two… well let’s just say I never hosted (go figure) but I did direct The Train some thirty years later, and I’m alive to tell you all about it!
It’s the year 2000 and I was living in LA for almost fifteen hours when I got a call, or maybe a page (miss those pages). The number I called back on was picked up by someone who answered “production office”… ok sounds secretive but after an odd thirty second conversation they figured out who I was and I found out it was the Soul Train Production office… wow I was going to have a meeting with Don Cornelius at their office in two days to discuss something.
Now I really never get nervous about meetings. Well Spielberg coming into the production truck on “On the Lot” was a wee bit intimidating but ya know, after enough Hollywood meetings, Hollywood meetings are, well just Hollywood meetings. No one tells the truth, says no, or secretly doesn’t harbor a not so subtle wish that your career implodes as theirs ascends. But I digress.
For some reason on the drive from my home In Agoura to the Soul Train offices on Sunset, my nerves decided to fire at once directly into my colon. Luckily I was so scared of being late I got there 90 minutes early, which only made me more neurotic as all versions of semi-rational thoughts crossed my mind: Why are they meeting with me? Do you they know I’m a director (no you idiot they think you are a caterer) My head started to fully spin when I pondered what the fuck am I going to say to Don Cornelius. My usual self-decrepitating NY Jew arrogance might not play so well. Do I talk Basketball? The current state of rap?? Finally the thought which caused colon attack number two was remembering getting two “Soul Train Greatest Hits” records as a birthday gift when I was eleven. But I didn’t have that vinyl anymore, it didn’t survive the purge when the compact disc was introduced fifteen years later. So how much of an idiot will he think I am if I mention it?
Attack two is dealt with and now I elevate up to the sixth floor and into a small and unassuming lobby and a receptionist says “hi.” I respond “hi.” Several beats go by where I fight off the urge to run, and I say I’m here to see Tony (Don’s son and Head of Production), as I dare not speaking Don’s name out loud. The lovely receptionist smiles, says please take a seat, not noticing I was already sitting, so I stood up and said thank you.
The wait in the lobby was short by Hollywood standards; I mean I got through T.C. Boyle novels waiting for CAA to allow me into their lair.
Saturday 15, 2002: I am directing Soul Train—Yes, that Soul Train—with the dancers, the third generation of insanely hot girls, even the updated versions of the longhaired asian girls. I think Chris Brown was a musical guest, it didn’t matter to me at the time, I shot the Soul Train Line Dance…
So I go into a conference room and meet Tony. After some light banter- it’s like all other meetings- I have forgotten about my digestive issues. Than literally as I start telling Tony why my directing his special and whatever show they are planning would greatly benefit them, I hear a door open and turn to see Don Cornelius, sans afro, but tall in a flowing shirt, leather pants and all legend in the flesh. I rise, shake his hand and collapse… no I didn’t collapse but I did bring up the “Greatest Hits” records I got and I as I started to rattle off the songs, Don says he knows the tracks and I make a self-deprecating joke which is met with an immediate turn to the special they wanted me to direct.
Three weeks later I’m shooting a special they had put together for the congressional black caucus, and fifteen thousand other people. I remember shooting for something like four straight hours and loving every second. What was missing on the organizational front with Soul Train Productions was more than made up for with passion for the music.
I had little contact with Don before we started shooting but at a break near the end of the very long evening, Don entered the production truck. Don told me he didn’t watch all that much of the “line-cut” but from what he did see, he liked it and used a metaphor comparing how he knew I could shoot music the same way he knew the theme music on Soul Train was good. I was insanely happy, even if I was a bit perplexed by the comparison, but needless to say on the drive back from downtown to Agoura Hills, the Soul Train theme was firmly implanted in my brain.
I was now the Director for the Soul Train Yearly Music Specials. But let’s face it- “Soul Train” is the Saturday Weekly series, the series that ran from 1969 at local UHF station in Chicago to become the longest running syndicated series in the history of American Television.
About two years after I met Don, I got the call, could I work a weekend worth’s of Soul Train?
…. Let me think…Ok yes.
Saturday 15, 2002, I am directing Soul Train; yes that Soul Train with the dancers, the third generation of insanely hot girls, even the updated versions of the longhaired asian girls. I think Chris Brown was a musical guest, it didn’t matter to me at the time, I shot the Soul Train Line Dance….
I walked into Paramount Studios and the Soul Train Stage where everyone had done the show before with an inner circle all-moving to Don. Right next to him was Reggie. Reggie was a stage manager and Don’s conduit to me. Reggie told me the basic do’s and dont’s which Don re-iterated. Number 1: “Girls, Girls, Girls’ i.e. shoot “Girls” during the dancing. Number 2: If Don’ is not getting what he wants he will call via the “Ringtown” … Reggie will warn me first.
I shot a dance sequence, than “Ringtown” which felt like I was in trouble with not only Don, but history itself. I got the note and continued shooing with Number 1 in my mind so to avoid Number 2.
I worked on Soul Train weekly dance show from 2001-2, and 2005-6. Little changed from the Soul Train re-runs of the seventies to the ones I did. Soul music in all its glorious forms and derivatives were showcased and informed a generation, both black and white.